President Biden’s Transgender Discrimination Order: What It Means for Women’s Sports

When newly inaugurated President Joe Biden signed an executive order to prevent LGBTQ+ discrimination, he explicitly referenced high school and college athletes and revitalized the ongoing debate on whether or not transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in women’s sports.

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By Saadat Rafin

What place comes to mind when you think of sports? While you might be visualizing the squeaky-clean hardwood floor of a basketball court or the sprawling green field of a soccer pitch, you are probably not thinking of the Oval Office. However, when newly inaugurated President Joe Biden signed an executive order to prevent LGBTQ+ discrimination, he revitalized the ongoing debate on whether or not transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in women’s sports and merged the worlds of politics and sports.

The directive, titled “Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation,” was signed just hours after President Biden was inaugurated on January 20, 2021. It calls on federally-funded schools across the U.S. to allow transgender athletes to partake in sports teams of their gender identities. “Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to […] school sports,” the order reads. While it doesn’t set any uniform guidelines, the act mandates that agencies must review and revise their current policies within 100 days to ensure that transgender students are not subject to discrimination in school athletics. Furthermore, failure to comply with the order will result in legal action and the withdrawal of federal education funds.

The dilemma around transgender athletes competing in sports has long been a hot topic of debate. Just last year, bills aimed to prevent transgender athletes from competing in sports of their identified genders were introduced in 17 different U.S. states. In Idaho, the bill became a law and was supported by the state’s Republican-dominated house as well as the Trump administration. The Trump administration intervened once again in Connecticut, supporting a lawsuit filed by several cisgender girls who were looking to block a state law that allowed transgender athletes to participate in sports teams of their identified genders. The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights eventually ruled that the policy allowing transgender athletes to compete in women’s sports violates the civil rights of female athletes.

Given the history of transgender inclusion—or rather, exclusion—in sports, it’s clear why Biden’s discrimination order is such a victory for athletes who have transitioned from male to female. But, as one would expect, not everyone supports the order. There has been heated opposition to the president’s decision from people who claim that transgender athletes will uneven the playing field and ruin women’s sports. The focal point of their argument is that biologically, male athletes have a physical advantage over female-born athletes, giving them a greater chance of unfairly claiming scholarships and awards.

To compensate for the biological differences, the NCAA requires transgender women to complete one year of testosterone suppression treatment before they can participate on women’s teams. In addition, the International Olympic Committee guidelines allow transgender women to compete in the women’s category only if their blood testosterone levels have been sustained below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months. However, a groundbreaking new study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed that even after two years of suppressing their testosterone level, transgender women still hold a competitive edge over their cisgender counterparts. For instance, the transgender athletes who were involved in the study ran 12 percent faster than the biologically female participants. As a result, the researchers who conducted the study concluded that the one-year waiting period for transitioning Olympic athletes is inadequate and that the playing field may never be even for transgender athletes and biologically female athletes.

The question of how to balance inclusivity and fair competition in sports is by no means an easy one to answer, as valid points are made on both sides of the argument. While it is true that transgender females have a biological advantage that may give them a lead over cisgender athletes, it is wrong to exclude them from competing in what they love. Everyone is entitled to equal opportunities, and gender identity should never prevent anyone from participating in sports. That being said, however, accommodations and rule changes are necessary to make the situation just for everyone.

One solution could be to end male and female sections and instead divide athletes into categories based on hormone levels, height, weight, and other biological factors. This adjustment would be particularly beneficial in contact sports such as football and martial arts, because it would reduce the risk of injuries, which has been a major concern for those against transgender participation. While this proposal would help level the competitive advantages transgender athletes have, it is unrealistic. For as long as we can recall, sports have nearly always been separated by gender. By creating multiple categories of athletes, sports committees face the risk of overcomplicating sports and making the viewer experience less enjoyable. Take, for example, an event like the Olympics. Having multiple groups of athletes for each competition could be too convoluted and might result in a loss of viewership.

A more plausible solution would be to set limits on testosterone levels based on the sport. For example, a transgender tennis player would be required to lower their testerone levels to 8.0 nanomoles per liter before being eligible to compete, while a transgender wrestler would have to lower their testosterone levels to half of that. This way, transgender participation would not be terminated but rather carefully regulated to ensure fairness in sports for everyone.

The ethical question of where to draw the line may never be answered in a way that satisfies everyone, yet we must all try to broaden our perspectives and rely on the concrete facts provided by science to make a morally sound decision.